Performing Under Pressure

Here’s my take on a situation I have first-hand knowledge on (situations I’m knowledgeable on are few, so please indulge me).

A student, any student, will come marching in the studio, whip out their instrument, tune up, and commence playing, only to find their performance goes a bit rougher than hoped.  Almost without fail, the first words from their mouth will be something like:

” I just played this at home, perfectly! I don’t understand why I can’t do it now??!!”

Seen it with students dozens of times. Been there myself so, so many times.  I have worked at a song for literally hours until I think I have it perfected. Then comes my chance to perform it for someone. Suddenly I find myself staring down at my own fingers with the same look I probably have at Family Reunions; the look that says “I have some vague remembrance of you and we are in some way connected but how, I cannot at the moment say”.  Who’s rebellious fingers could these be?  Just a short time ago, we had gotten along so well. We made sweet music together. The future looked so bright and shiny. But now there’s a disconnect between my brain and finger-tips. There’s a big void in my mind where the song once was.  It’s as if I haven’t practiced at all!  Is there a bill I’ve forgotten to pay or what?
On the other hand I can recall several occasions where the student confesses they haven’t played the instrument at all that day, week, etc and they proceed to work through there songs with little or no trouble.

So, what’s going on here?

When I first encountered this situation, I assumed it was simply intimidation causing the sub-par performance.  A student could reasonably be expected to feel intimidated in the presence of a teacher.  But then, I witnessed this re-occurring with long-term students whom I had developed a good relationship with and knew me to be anything but a harsh critic.  It also happened to me personally when I’d attempt to play a new piece for friends or family members.  It’s safe to say, my friends and fam are not intimidating folks (mostly).  After years of watching this scene replay before me  like Andy Griffith re-runs, I began to wonder if the issue is more of an internal pressure to prove ourselves, rather than being intimidated.  To prove we did it right at home 30 minutes ago or even everyday for the past week or longer.  We probably have a vivid memory of conquering  this piece of music, but maybe also this thought that “it doesn’t count until somebody else witnesses it”.  We humans have weird, unspoken laws we are often governed by, don’t we?   So here we are, with a chance to prove our progress, and this internal but very sneaky voice instigating us to show off our accomplishments.  And the pressure of needing to prove something, I believe, is what causes a kind of mental block between us and our music.

There is a theory that our inability to overcome new challenges is mostly caused by our attempt to use problem solving techniques from our past experiences to overcome new obstacles (Sidenote: it doesn’t even matter if the old techniques worked, we often default to them anyways).  Is this what’s taking place when we try to perform in front of someone ? Are we trying to repeat the same performance we had at home where our obstacles were fewer?  At home, we’re likely in our comfort zone, on our own time, with no one around and probably playing music when we feel motivated (by coffee, possibly) to tackle a new song.  Now, we are in a scheduled, limited lesson time, in front of our teacher, possibly after work, school, etc. when we’re fatigued, and our focus is strained.  What could possibly go wrong?

There’s hope.

We are not doomed to the endless loop, as you may already know.  If we can develop a mindset early in our musical pursuits, of not trying to prove anything but enjoying the moment, we’ll be on a great track for progressive music-making.  This should be easily accomplished overnight….right?

Not so much.

The mental part of musicianship is the trickiest by far.  Starting with healthy thought processes will help you get the most out of your time and music.  Here are a few things to remind yourself of when playing music to stay out of the trap of trying to prove anything to anyone:

1) Continually remind yourself: by simply starting your journey, you have already succeeded where others failed.  Someone listening wishes they had the courage to do what you’re doing, whether they admit or not. It’s true.

2) (This one’s huge) Nobody has ever since the beginning of history, played music the way you do.   We are totally unique individuals and therefore our music, even when trying to copy someone else, will have our personality all over it.  This bears much considering.

3) Celebrate LARGE when you play well.  It’s super imperative to ingrain good muscle memory.  The endorphins released by associating good performance with end-zone style celebration aids in this process exponentially.  It’s part of our design.

4) RECORD YOURSELF.  I have been preaching this for a while because of the numerous benefits.  Get in the habit of performing under pressure by hitting record (audio or video) before you start picking.  It adds an unexpected level of stress inoculation or “healthy stress”.   Then your everyday, at home playing feels to some degree, like a performance.

And above all remember this music thing is about effort.  Enjoy the journey, not the detonation….I mean destination!  If we truly enjoy something we don’t demand flawless perfection but rather enjoy the process.

Now go pick that instrument up.  And just play.

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